Dragoons in the Civil War
Being a true relation of their weapons & uses
From Historical Collections by Robert Giglio
based on an article by Keith Roberts (Caliver Books/Partizan Press)

The ECWSA supports Caliver Books
as the BEST international source for new/used books and research on the English Civil Wars and the 17th century in

It is interesting to note that during the last year or so the portrayal of dragoons has started to take hold by some lesser-learned units at re-enactments in this country. I thought that I would shed a little insight into why the ECWSA reacts so negatively, not to mention nearly laughing out loud, at the sight of dragoons, especially ones that are not historically represented, but reflect the way dragoons exist in the re-enactment societies in England. I should point out, that even in our own Civil War, the use of dismounted cavalry (who regularly take the field at battles without any horses at all!) are always laughed at, often with derogatory remarks made (Farbs!).

The simplest way of understanding any seventeenth century military strategy and tactics is to read the works of those who were involved in actually putting them into practice (i.e., contemporary research). In this way, units and modes of authentic dress and behavior can be represented at our re-enactments. When someone or a unit does things that are contrary from what is known, or easily researched with a little effort, it only goes to show that they have opted for the "...I saw it in a book...", or "...that's how they do it in England..." theories.

The first extract relating to dragoons is from Sir James Turner's Pallas Armata (London, 1683). Turner had a wealth of practical military experience serving as a mercenary in Europe before and after the ECW, as well as in Ireland and England. He states that:

"Dragoons are Musketeers mounted on Horses, appointed to march with the Cavalry, in regard there are not only many occasions, wherein Foot can assist the Horse, but that seldom there is any occasion of service against an Enemy, but wherein it is both fit and necessary to join some Foot with the Horse, Dragoons then go not only before to guard Passes (as some imagine) but to fight in open field; for if an Enemy recounter with a Cavalry in a champaign or on open Heath, the Dragoons are obliged to alight, and mix themselves with the squads of Horse, as they shall be commanded; and their continued Firing, before the Horse comes to the charge, will, no doubt, be very hurtful to the Enemy: if the encounter be in a close Country, they serve well to line Hedges, and posses Enclosures, they serve for defending Passes and Bridges, whether it be in the Advance, or Retreat of an Army, and for beating the Enemy from them:

Their service is on foot, and is no other than that of Musketeers; but because they are mounted on Horseback, and ride with the Horse, either in the Van, or behind in the Rear of an Army, they are reckon'd as a part of the Cavalry, and are subordinate to the General, Lt-General, or Maj-General of the Horse, and not to those of the foot. And being that sometimes they are forced to retire from a powerful and prevailing Enemy, they ought to be taught to give Fire on Horseback, that in an open field they may keep an Enemy at a distance till they get the advantage of a closer Country, a Straight, a Pass, a Bridge, a Hedge, or a Ditch, and then they are bound to alight, and defend that advantage, that thereby (though perhaps with the loss of the Dragoons themselves) the Cavalry may be saved.

When they alight, they cast their Bridle Reins over the necks of their side-mens Horses, and leave them in that same order as they marched. Of ten Dragoons, nine fight, and the tenth man keeps the ten Horses."
In dealing with the Dragoons' actual service on foot, Turner comments that, "Since then a Dragoon when he alights, and a Musketeer are all one, I have forborn hitherto to speak of the several ways how the ranks of Musketeers fire, having reserved it to this as a proper place."

Other well known contemporary writers, such as Jacobi von Wallhausen in his book Driegs-Kunst zu Pferd, or more promanient, John Cruso in his book Militarie Instructions for the Cavall'rie, make much the same comments as Turner. Turner's point on the use of Dragoons "...to fight in open field...", and not only to secure passes and bridges is particularly interesting, however.

Having considered the use of Dragoons, it is worthwhile to review their equipment, and here it is important to be aware of the difference between that used in Europe before the ECW, and that used in Engalnd during the ECW. John Cruso gives a good description of the early European style, and the unknown J.B. from his book Some Brief Instructions for the Exercising of the Horse-Troopes, gives a valuable view of their use in England, which is clearly based on personal experience.

Cruso's comment is as follows:

"Of the arming of the Dragon
The Dragon is of two kinds, Pike, and musket. The pike is to have a thong of leather about the middle of the pike, for the more commodious carrying of it. The musketeer is to have a strap or belt fastn'd to the stock thereof, almost from the one end to the other, by which (being on horse-back) he hangeth it at his back, keeping his burning match and the bridle in the left hand. His horse is of the least price, the use thereof being but to expedite his march, allighting to do his service."
J.B.'s comment is as follows:

"The other Arming of the Cavalry used in these our Modern times, known by the Name of Dragoones (being only Foot Mounted) is a Sword (all) and some Muskets, and some Pikes, both having Leather Thongs fixed to them, whereby they may be the easier carried; his lighted Match and Bridle in his left hand, having his Right hand at Liberty for the better ordering of his Pike or Musket in their March, and as occasion shall require. Yet in these our English Wars, it was observed that the Dragoons seldom used any Pikes, and of late times most snap-haunce Locks; they being chiefly to secure Passes, and to Line Hedges, if occasion require, either to secure the other Cavalry with whom they Marched, or to offend the Enemy."
In addition, another contemporary writer, Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery, who writes in his Art of War (London, 1677; p. 33-34) of Dragoons:

"I would have every Regiment of Horse consist of seven Troops, six whereof should be Armed with Back, Breast and Pott (helmet), and for offence, should have Swords or Tucks, with Pistols and Carbines; and the seventh Troop should be of Firelocks, or Dragoons, whose duty should be to guard the Quarter of the Regiment; to secure passes with Celerity; to force Passes possest by the Enemy; to assist the Horse when they fight in enclosed Countries; and in Battle, to alightt; and marching up in the outermost Flank of the Regiment, should be in two Ranks, the first kneeling, the second standing, a little before the Squadrons Charged, Fire upon the Enemy, their guns loaded with Pistol bullets, which I have sometimes practised, and found it attended with great success; and every tenth man while the rest were on such service, was to hold the Horses of those who were thus employed."
The interesting point about the above quote, is that the dragoons (drawn into two ranks) are to give one volley (salvee) at the last possible moment. This in contrary to Turner, who recommends a "rolling" fire as the enemy approaches. The dragoons stand ahead of the friendly line of horse, both to afford a better arc of fire, and to avoid frightening the poor beasts. The disadvantage of this tactic must have been painfully obvious, that if the combination of firepower and counter-charge failed to stop the enemy horse, any groups of musketeers would have been left dangerously exposed. This is exactly what happened at the battle of Winceby (Oct. 1643), when both sides drew up their dragoons dismounted between the squadrons of horse, but the Royalist Dragoons were left helpless when the squadrons of horse they were flanking were routed, and having no other option, surrendered to the Parliamentarians.

In England, therefore, we find most of the Dragoon companies raised for the Civil War armed only with muskets, first matchlocks and later in the war with snaphance or dog-lock muskets. George Monk in his Observations upon Military and Political Affairs, explains the value of the latter type of musket for dragoons, with his comment:
"A Musket, or a good Snapance to a Musket Barrel; the which I hold much better for Dragoon-Service, being upon occasion they may be able to make use of their Snapances on Horseback, and upon any Service in the night they may go undiscovered, as always, however, availability of supply and not only developments in military theory affected actual issue."
English Dragoons were organized in troops, and modeled on infantry companies. These were not always formed into, or raised as, full regiments, and single troops are sometimes found attached to cavalry regiments. J.B. in his book, gives details of, "...the Stipends or Pay allowed by the Parliament (in the beginning of the late Civil Wars)", and in doing so details the underlying structure by listing the various officers. The same pay and structural details for a troop of dragoons can be found in use amongst the papers of the Committee of Suffolk, circa 1643.

The information provided in this article is interesting in itself, but is particularly useful as a base from which to consider contemporary accounts of incidents, skirmishes or battles, and how Dragoons should be equipped and portrayed in our modern re-enactments. Although, contemporary accounts rarely give details of the underlying military structure or explains why tactical decisions were made, since the writer assumes his audience of contemporaries understands this already. A modern reader does not understand this, and without this basic information, can easily misunderstand a contemporary's description of an event.

In conclusion, it seems that the proper arms for a dragoon is either a matchlock (caliver) musket or firelock musket, with a normal bandolier of charges, priming flask, and dressed in his regimental uniform, along with boots, since he DID ride a horse to maneuver around the battlefield. Therefore, it is quite wrong for dragoons to be seen with carbines, which were ONLY issued to horse troopers (cavalry), and it is also quite wrong to see dragoons without horses. The sight of dragoons using carbines and/or without horses leaves an effect on other infantry that people who choose to portray dragoons as such are only doing it so they can wear boots and spurs, act as skirmishers away from the main body of troops, and generally stand out from the rest of the common infantry.

The Society does not recognize the use or forming of dragoons for re-enactment purposes in this country. Requiring units to portray regular infantry or horse troopers instead, and if dragoons are to be raised, then they should be properly armed, and should ALWAYS be accompanied by horses at musters, and not just used as an excuse for soldiers to carry fancier weapons and wear boots!

© Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 & 2002 The English Civil War Society of America. All rights reserved.